Curiel was tasked with ruling on a civil suit brought against Trump's for-profit university named -- natch -- Trump University. At a late May rally in San Diego, Trump -- apparently randomly -- brought the case up, calling Curiel a "very hostile judge" and then insinuating that Curiel had a conflict of interest because he was of Mexican heritage.
"What happens is the judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great. I think that's fine," Trump said at the rally
In an early June interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, Trump went further.
"He's a Mexican," Trump said of Curiel. "We are building a wall between here and Mexico." Asked directly by Tapper why Trump was invoking Curiel's heritage in a case involving Trump University, the presidential candidate responded: "I think that's why he's doing it."
(Nota bene: Curiel was born in Indiana.)
Trump's comments -- and stop me if you've heard this one before -- brought widespread denunciations not just from Democrats but from many in his own party too. Speaker Paul Ryan called the remark "racist."
Then-Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk revoked his support for Trump.
And then, like every other self-created controversy surrounding Trump, it just sort of went away. Trump never apologized. The furthest he went was to release a statement
that said this: "It is unfortunate that my comments have been misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage."
Curiel seemed certain to recede in the public consciousness, never to be heard from again.
Curiel is now slated to hear the first major challenge to Trump's new deportation policies -- a case involving a 23-year-old man whose lawyers allege was born in the United States but wrongly deported to Mexico earlier this year
. (The man was allegedly part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals -- DACA -- program.) The Department of Homeland Security told CNN that the man was not captured and deported as he alleges.
If I wrote a screenplay that included this twist -- Trump walks into a crowded courtroom, looks up to see Curiel on the bench and grimaces -- no one would take it seriously. Too unrealistic. Overly and unnecessarily dramatic. Cliche-ridden.
And yet, it's happening -- the latest evidence that through his own devices and even those he lacks any control over, the Trump presidency has all the markings of the best (or worst, depending on your view) reality television.
"Trump-Curiel Round 2!" is literally the stuff of pay-per-view TV. And it's a showdown the likes of which our reality-TV obsessed culture will absolutely lap up.
Knowing Trump, it may well be the sort of thing he will lean into -- despite the near-certain advice of his advisers to ignore it. Trump is someone who tends to be happiest when he is running against someone or something -- hence his troubles in the early days of his presidency as he struggles to find a worthy adversary.
Curiel may be that foil for Trump as the president desperately tries to build momentum in advance of the 100-day mark of his time in the White House. Which would be totally bizarre -- for any politician not named Donald Trump.